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The Protective One

LIST PRICE $9.99

New York Times bestselling author Shelley Shepard Gray weaves a moving and unforgettable exploration of love and friendship in this “slow-burning, enjoyable romance [with] a poignant message about the importance of community, compassion, and doing what’s right rather than what’s easy” (Publishers Weekly).

The tragic and untimely death of an old friend has made Elizabeth Anne rethink not only her priorities but also her courtship with David, her longtime neighbor and suitor. Though he’s Mennonite like herself and has her parents’ approval, she feels that a spark is missing. Desperate for a change, she breaks things off—wondering if, perhaps, she’s the one who’s missing a spark.

When her family becomes upset with her decision, E.A. turns to her friends for support. One of them is Will, a man with a good heart who has always been there for her. As the two bond over their shared struggle to navigate a future that everyone else seems to have figured out, they are surprised to realize that they have feelings for each other.

But E.A.’s world takes a sudden turn when she realizes that she’s not the only one struggling—Marta, one of her sewing students, is in desperate need of protection. With the aid of Will and several other friends, E.A. begins a journey that is more difficult and rewarding than she could have ever imagined...one that ultimately enables her to find everything she’s been searching for.

“Gray deftly weaves the threads of abuse, friendship, love, and faith into a thought-provoking, emotional story” (Patricia Davids, USA TODAY bestselling author) that is sure to appeal to both new and longtime fans.

Chapter One ONE
“Hi, everyone. My name is Elizabeth Anne Schmidt, but most everybody calls me E.A. I thought I’d share a favorite story with you about Marie and John B.

“I think the first thing you ought to know is that our Marie here was named homecoming queen her junior year of high school. You should also probably know that until that evening, John B. had no idea that such things even happened.”

JULY

There were more fireflies dotting the fields around her house than Elizabeth Anne could count. But still she tried. She’d once read that people believed wishing on them, like on the stars, might make dreams come true. She’d always thought such a notion was foolish.

But lately?

Well, lately, Elizabeth Anne was beginning to think she’d been going through life a little too resolutely. Perhaps she would be happier if she took more time to daydream and wish on fireflies.

She was a twenty-four-year-old Mennonite, had a job at the fabric store that was rather boring, and was anticipating a proposal from a man who had never made her pulse race or her heart sing.

Though having both employment and a beau should have given her a feeling of fulfillment, she felt empty. Like a firefly that had no light.

But maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t the kind of woman destined for fierce longings or challenging jobs. Were some women simply more romantic and apt to blush and fuss more than others? Perhaps the problem was that she’d never felt such things. Perhaps she wasn’t capable of such.

She sighed. The action rocked the swing a bit, jarring the man sitting next to her.

“Elizabeth Anne, you’ve sure been quiet for a while,” David blurted from her side. Looking her over like a doctor might look at a sprained ankle, he continued, “Is everything all right? Are you ill?”

“Am I ill? Oh, nee.” She was simply bored.

Folding his hands over his chest, David sighed. “Well, then … what have you been thinking about?” Impatience was in his voice now. “You know it’s only proper for us to sit together on the porch swing for thirty minutes. We should make the most of our time.”

Elizabeth Anne almost rolled her eyes. Because that, she feared, was the problem. Here they were, a courting couple sitting alone on a porch swing on an early summer evening. The air was warm and comfortable, fireflies were twinkling in the distance, and the faint scent of honeysuckle floated in the breeze.

No one else was around, and even if someone were, no one in her family would so much as blink if David had his arm around her shoulders. Not even if they were kissing. They’d been courting a long time now.

But they weren’t doing any of that. Nothing even close to it. And they never had.

“I’m sorry.” Looking at handsome, wholesome David, with his brown hair, brown eyes, full cheeks, and rather thin lips, E.A. wished yet again that there was some kind of spark between them. “I was just looking at the fireflies.”

“What about them?” He turned his head to stare out at the soybean field that seemed to go for miles on either side of them. As if they were pleased to have his attention, the hundreds of fireflies danced and sparked. The sight was mesmerizing.

“I read once that people used to make wishes on them,” she said softly, hoping to instill a bit of whimsy in their conversation.

He looked back at her and wrinkled his nose. “Wishes?”

Jah. You know, like on stars.” When he still gaped at her, she cleared her throat. “Do you think that’s true?”

Turning to the field again, he shrugged. “I have no idea. Honestly, Elizabeth Anne, I’ve given up trying to understand why other people do the things they do.”

Elizabeth Anne. David always called her by her full name. Never E.A. like her best friends. Or her parents, or her sister, Annie. Even her teachers had called her E.A. on occasion.

She didn’t think calling her any sort of pet name had ever entered David’s mind. Ever.

Thinking about that, about how David didn’t see anything in the distance but a bunch of bugs, she pressed her lips together. “Hmm.”

His voice sharpened. “Come now. You know I’m right. Why, lots of folks do strange things, things that people like you and me couldn’t even begin to contemplate.”

“I guess that’s true,” she replied, though she wasn’t sure if his statement actually was true. Especially since she was contemplating all sorts of things at the moment.

Staring back at the dancing fireflies, she ventured, “You know what? Maybe we should play a game.”

“Out here in the dark?”

“It’s not all that dark.”

“It’s too dark to play any sort of game.” He sounded shocked. So shocked she couldn’t help but egg him on a bit.

“David, how about the two of us make some wishes right now?”

“Um …”

“Come on, it will be fun. I mean, look at all those lights! Why, it looks like Christmas in July. Don’t you think it’s the perfect night to make a wish or two?”

Nee.”

“No?” That was it?

“Elizabeth Anne, you and I both know that no good ever comes from making wishes that won’t come true. It’s best to concentrate on what is possible.” Before she could comment, he continued, “That’s what I’ve always admired about you. You don’t waste your time dreaming about things that could never happen to a girl like you.”

“A girl like me?” Why did that sound extremely unflattering?

Jah.” He waved a hand. “You are smart.”

She knew she was. She’d been smart enough to graduate at the top of her high school class. Yes, the Lord had truly blessed her with a good mind.

But being smart wasn’t only what she was. Did he see that?

He kept talking. “You are also strong. Jah, you have fortitude.”

She was at sea. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Sure you do.” While she gaped at him, he nodded. “You never contemplate selfish acts.”

Everything he was saying sounded awfully old-fashioned. “David, what is on your mind?”

He crossed one leg over another, like a proper old man from the Victorian age. “Come now, you know who I’m thinking of.”

His look, even in the dim light, was pointed. She shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I know what you are referring to.”

David pushed off the swing and stood in front of her. “Not what. Who.”

“Hmm?”

“Of course, I’m talking about that man.”

“What man?” She was becoming exasperated.

“That man you used to know,” he said impatiently.

She decided to match his tone. “Stop speaking in riddles.”

“Fine. I’m talking about Andy Warner.”

He was speaking of Andy? A chill entered her body and settled in. Wrapping her arms around her middle, E.A. took a deep, fortifying breath. Anything to stop the sudden rush of tears that had just filled her eyes.

“David, Andy was my friend, not just some man I used to know.” Actually, he’d been so much more than that. He’d been the Eights’ leader, and their instigator. More than once he’d been her protector.

He’d been that way with everyone.

Sadness filled her as she thought of the boy he’d been. Oh, he’d been so many things. Loud and handsome and caustic. Yet, so very kind, too. He’d been a jumble of emotions and personality traits. He’d been complicated.

Just like she was.

Propping his hands on his hips, David looked at her directly. “Well, Andy Warner might have been your friend—”

“No, he was my friend,” she said firmly. “Andy was one of my best friends.”

He grunted. “All I’m trying to say is that he must not have felt the same way about you.”

Elizabeth Anne gaped at him, shocked. “Of course he did. Why would you say that?” What she meant to say was How could you say such a thing to me?

“Come now. He killed himself. That’s the most selfish, weak act a person can do.”

“Don’t say that.” One, two tears slid down her cheeks. “You don’t know.”

“All I’m saying is that no man who cares about his friends, who really cares about his friends, would take his own life.”

Her temper flared. “You need to stop,” she ordered, her voice thick with emotion. “You didn’t know Andy at all. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He stood up straighter, almost as if he were a parent delivering a lecture to a recalcitrant child. “I’m sorry if my words made you upset, but you know I’m right, Elizabeth Anne. All I’m doing is pointing out the truth.”

“No, you’re spouting off your wrong opinions like you have a right to say them.”

“I do. I have every right.”

Not about Andy. Looking at him directly, E.A. wondered why she’d ever thought David could be the man for her. Getting to her feet, she said, “I think it’s time for you to go.”

But he didn’t budge an inch. “Are you really going to get upset with me about this?”

Yes. Yes, she was. She was finally going to get upset with him about a lot of things. About the way he timed his visits. How he only called her by her full name. And never tried to get to know her other friends. Or held her hand.

But most of all, she was going to make him leave because she was finally admitting to herself that she deserved better. Someone much better.

“Yes, I am,” she said finally. “I do believe I’m going to be very upset with you.”

He sighed, like he thought she was being overly dramatic and would soon collapse in a fit of vapors or something. “I see. Well, then, I guess I should be going.” He stood and walked down the front steps. “I certainly hope you will be in better spirits when I come calling next Saturday night.”

A quick vision entered her head—a vision of the two of them sitting on this blasted front porch swing again and again. Never doing anything but talking about the weather and their jobs. Never noticing the fireflies. Never being anything more.

She couldn’t do it.

“David, don’t come back next Saturday night.”

He turned around. “Say again?”

“I said for you not to come calling on me next Saturday.” Feeling relieved that the decision was made, she continued, “In fact, I think it would be best if you didn’t come back here again.”

His eyebrows rose so high, they hid under the brim of his hat. “You’re going to stay mad at me for that long?”

“No. I’m going to finally move on. We’re done.”

He looked incredulous. Went so far as to reach out a hand to almost touch her. “We can’t be done, Elizabeth Anne. What about all the time we’ve put into this?”

“This isn’t about time spent courting, David. This is about the fact that we are too different. I mean, you don’t even understand how much Andy meant to me.” And how hard it had been to lose him.

His expression hardened. “What will our parents say? They’re counting on this match.”

But she didn’t want to be in a “match.” She wanted to be in love. Realizing that David would never understand that, she muttered, “They will have to be disappointed then.” Just as she was.

“But—”

“Good night and goodbye,” she said over her shoulder.

Even though he was still staring at her in shock, practically frozen, she strode inside.

She was fuming. She was so mad, her skin felt clammy and a bead of sweat was running down her brow.

“Has it been thirty minutes already?” Daed asked as Elizabeth closed the door firmly.

She took a deep breath and attempted to answer her sweet father in a calm tone of voice. “Jah.”

“Ah. Well, yes. I guess it has, indeed, been David’s allotted thirty minutes.” Her father, who everyone said looked a bit like Santa Claus, smiled at her.

Reluctantly, she smiled back at him.

After folding the latest issue of the Budget on his lap, he looked at her over the rims of his reading glasses. “Well, how was your beau tonight?”

For a moment, E.A. contemplated sharing with her father what had happened. Thought about explaining her feelings and how she knew there had to be someone better suited for her than David.

But if she did that, Daed would call for her mother, Mamm would rush in, and then the three of them would have a “cozy discussion” that would last for at least an hour. There was no way she was up for that.

“He was the same as always,” she finally said as she started up the stairs.

“Elizabeth?”

“I’m sorry, Daed, I’ve got to, um, go to the bathroom.” He looked taken aback, but nodded, leaving her alone with her thoughts as she climbed the steep stairs to her attic bedroom.

Yes, David had been the same. Not very romantic, not very perceptive. It wasn’t even the first time he’d mentioned how mystified he was about Andy’s death and her continued mourning of him.

She was the one who’d become different. Someone who wanted more, someone who felt she deserved more.

Or, maybe, just maybe, she’d at last become her real self. The person she’d meant to be all along.
Photograph by Dianne Bomar at The New Studio

A practicing Lutheran, Shelley Shepard Gray is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than one hundred novels, translated into multiple languages. In her years of researching the Amish community, she depends on her Amish friends for gossip, advice, and cinnamon rolls. She lives in Colorado with her family and writes full time.

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